Naming new-found gem and mineral species after those who discovered them or in honor of important mineralogists and gemologists has been accepted practice for at least a century. But in 1911, the mineral world made a notable exception to this custom for a pink beryl that had recently been discovered on the African island of Madagascar.
At the urging of gemology and jewelry kingpin George Kunz, the new stone was called “morganite,” ostensibly to honor banker/financier John Pierpont Morgan for his many donations of gems and minerals to the American Museum of Natural History. Among Morgan’s gifts to the museum: the much-celebrated 16,000-piece Clarence Bementh mineral collection bought in 1900 for the then princely sum of $100,000.
But, in actuality, paying tribute to Morgan for his munificence was a secondary reason for the name choice. Kunz was far more likely paying an IOU to Morgan incurred for a failure to honor his generosity eight years earlier.
At the time, J.P.Morgan was perhaps the most distinguished patron of Tiffany’s, the much-heralded jewelry store for which Kunz worked as a vice president. Kunz had often arranged for Morgan to buy collections direct from Tiffany, or with the store acting as intermediary, that the tycoon would then donate to the museum.
To show his appreciation, Kunz, according to a 1922 article that he wrote, proposed that a new-found species of pink spodumene, discovered in California in 1902, be named “morganite.” But when Morgan supposedly couldn’t be reached to OK the intended trade name, Charles Baskerville, a chemistry professor with whom Kunz collaborated on the first gemological studies of the new gem, suggested, instead, the name “kunzite.”
Kunz expert Lawrence Conklin doubts the gemologist made any real effort to reach Morgan or that much persuasion was needed to get him to accept the 1903 name substitution. “Kunz was a very clever man and something of a promoter,” Conklin says. “I think he wanted that spodumene named after himself in the worst way.” If so, did a lingering guilty conscience years later prompt Kunz to christen the next pink gem he was instrumental in identifying “morganite”?
We’ll probably never know the answer to this question. In any case, the beryl’s trade name is a reminder of Kunz’s power in the gem world during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. What’s more, it is fitting that the trade names of two often-confused pink gems- kunzite and morganite- should bear witness to Tiffany’s turn-of-the-century hegemony in colored stones, one for which Kunz was primarily responsible.